The Writing Teacher

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

Albert Einstein

On a Saturday in mid-March 2016 my writing teacher died. Susan was fifty-four. She had not only lived fourteen years longer than the doctors had predicted, she had lived her days as if she would never die—full of optimism, determination, humour and sometimes rage.

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In the fall of 2015, two weeks before my 68th birthday, I signed up for a creative writing course being offered through the local seniors college. The journey began with a locked door on a frigid Thursday afternoon. The church secretary had forgotten us. We stood, seven or eight of us, backs to the wind, crumpled inside our insufficient clothing. I looked at people’s shoes. What type of older woman wears bright pink Mary Janes or fashionable but stalwart brown leather hiking boots? I had on my perennial Birkenstocks—with socks.

Twenty minutes later, the apologetic late-comer opened the door. Susan’s friend helped her and her paraphernalia—computer, briefcase, refreshments—into the classroom..

Around the long table we sat. Introduced ourselves. An artist. A businessman. A teacher. A traveler. Not surprisingly, the artist wore the fuchsia Mary Janes, the traveler the brown leather boots. Susan’s turn came. A published writer—poems and short stories. Wryly funny. Knowledgeable. Articulate. I knew that I was going to enjoy these Thursday afternoons.

When we read our work, Susan read hers. Bits and pieces came together. A car accident at sixteen. A quadriplegic. The illnesses, hospitalizations, pain. She never dwelt on those. Always the elfin grin, the bright eyes, the optimistic spirit. These were what we saw. Not the withered body. Not the twisted limbs. Not the wheelchair.

Susan bubbled information. Best books for memoir, poetry, story-telling. Writing workshops, publishing, writers’ groups. She inspired confidence. Guided our journeys. Proof-read. Edited. Made suggestions. Laughed. Mused. Pontificated. She wrote not of suffering or pain, but of beauty and joy—the perfect “amethyst day.”

After Susan died, I stopped writing. Two months passed. Then, I dreamed of three women. One lost in grief; one lacking self-confidence; one unable to commit to anything. The grieving woman had given up waiting for me and left. The woman short on self-esteem reminded me of my youth—the little girl who could never do anything well enough. I needed to let her and her uncommitted friend go. I needed to be courageous, determined, confident. I needed to open myself to joy. I needed to be like Susan.

I picked up my pen and began.

Susan’s Mom with Dahlias

A Passion to Learn

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.’ ―William Arthur Ward

With a complete disregard for deportment, my mother spewed me out on a late afternoon in mid-October, 1947. Perhaps because of the optimistic era that followed the end of World War II, multitudes of babies arrived that year. By 1952, not all of us could squeeze into the extant kindergarten classrooms. To solve the problem, the authorities changed the cut-off birth date for entering school from December 31st to August 31st. As a result, from our entry into and exit from all government-approved places of enlightenment, Billy Sutherland and I were always older than our classmates. However, the awkwardness that that fact sometimes caused never hindered my passion for learning. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love school.

In grade two I was assigned to Miss Wiebe’s split class which consisted of ten or twelve of us second graders and twenty or so children in the third grade. When the teacher taught the larger group she gave us seat-work. I finished my exercises in short order then listened in on the harder lesson. I was in heaven.

The next year I was again in Miss Wiebe’s split class. This time, the ratio was reversed. Twice as many grade twos as threes. I was bored. No such thing as enrichment then. I was jealous of the all-grade-three class—the one with a busy fairy-godmother teacher. Miss Anderson brought treasures from her foreign travels into the classroom and created lessons around them. How I longed to see those exotic objects and listen to their stories.

Miss Osborne, my scary-marvelous grade four teacher, demanded perfect attention and perfect silence. And, she got them. I don’t know how. She never yelled. She never used “the strap.” She was stern but knew how to deliver a lesson so that everyone could grasp it. I excelled in school that year. I loved Miss O.

Miss Osborne had a rule that if you wanted to go to the bathroom you raised your hand with two fingers extended. Just an index finger meant you wanted a drink. She was more inclined to grant the first than the latter so most kids just put up two fingers and got a drink on the way to or from the washroom where they stayed only long enough to suggest that they had needed to use it.

Miss O was super-strict during tests. No one dare look around, or down or even out the window. During one exam, I needed to pee but was afraid to ask. She might think I wanted to go to the washroom to consult a cheat sheet. The pressure on my bladder grew until I started to dribble. Soon a large yellow puddle glistened under my desk. The recess bell rang. The others handed in their papers and raced for the door. I sat there, paralyzed. When Miss O approached, I burst into tears. Formidable Miss O dissolved. A grandmother-like person knelt down beside my desk, soothed and consoled me and said that the next time I was to raise two fingers—even it is was during a test. Then, she sent me home to change my clothes. It was a figure skating afternoon. On those days, we girls wore our skating outfits to school then walked to the arena after classes. I remember that I had on a violet corduroy skirt, its hem fringed with a double row of small white pom-poms. I lived a short walk away. When I returned in different clothes, some of the kids asked me if had I peed my pants. “No,” I lied. Strange to say, that was the end of it. Perhaps the formidable Miss Osborne warned them to “Mind their own business.” Whatever the reason for the silence of my classmates on the subject, I never again wore that white-tufted purple skirt.

Grade five. Mrs. Carson. Short, stout, merry Mrs. Carson. She reveled in history and poetry. As Sir Walter Raleigh, she flung a red velvet cape over her shoulders. A gallant knight, she swept it off to cover an imaginary rain puddle on the green tiled floor. Then, she metamorphosed into Queen Elizabeth, trod daintily over the cape, and nodded appreciation to the place where the gallant knight once stood.

As for poems, Mrs. C recited ballads with gusto. On our part, we were required, by the end of the school year, to choose, memorize, and deliver two hundred lines of poetry. How wonderful! All of my two hundred lines came from one book—Flint and Feather, by Pauline Johnson, an Indian princess. The poet lived close to our town on the reservation in Brantford, Ontario. The poems sang. The rhythms pulsated. The landscape and the characters, exuded colour and detail and foreignness. I chose to recite a few of the longer poems including “The Cattle Thief” and “Wolverine.” More than sixty years later, I still remember the opening lines of the first:

They were coming across the prairie, they were galloping hard and fast;

For the eyes of those desperate riders had sighted their man at last—

Sighted him off to eastward, where the Cree encampment lay,

Where the cotton woods fringed the river miles and miles away.

I felt sorry for my sixth grade teacher because so few of us students paid attention. Mrs. Carson had set the bar so high that she couldn’t compete.

Seventh grade. Mr Parkinson. My first male teacher. A grammar fanatic. I loved grammar. Homework: ten sentences to parse. Every word. “The nasty neighbour throws rotten apples at our playful dog.”

The: definite article modifying the noun neighbour.

Nasty: adjective modifying the noun neighbour.

Neighbour: common noun subject of the verb throws. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et Cetera.

It took hours. Joyous hours. English could be dissected and understood. Just like a fetal pig in biology or a mathematical formula. Never before had I known the precision of language. I loved precision. With parsing, you were either right or wrong. A word was or was not a particular part of speech. Not like answers to short stories or novels, the rightness or wrongness of which often depended on the teacher’s point-of-view.

In high school I had an abundance of teachers. Two made me want to excel in their subject.

When we arrived for our first grade nine history class with Mr. Hull, he was standing at the front of the room, his feet splayed in an approximate second ballet position. His hands gripped the chalk ledge behind him. Four colossal numerals filled all three blackboards: 1066. He bounced on his toes as he proclaimed, “If you learn nothing else in this class, you will learn and remember this date—the most important in the history of Great Britain.” I’m seventy-three years old and still retain facts about the Battle of Hastings. History, as taught by Mr. Hull was as precise as parsing a sentence.

For four years Mr. Weber taught me art. What I loved best were not the art projects, which I did enjoy, but the history of art. After I graduated from university with a major in Psychology and a minor in English Literature, I returned to study art. Over twelve years, at intersession and summer school, I took every art course available: printmaking, photography, art history, art theory, drawing, painting, sculpture. When no art course was available in a suitable time slot, I opted for one on architecture.

After eight years of teaching English, my high school assignments grew to include art courses. I continued in that field until my retirement. Thank you Mr. Weber.

My four years at university produced one remarkable professor. Dr. Jacques Goutour. About seventy-five students filled a small amphitheatre. A wiry, energetic man entered. He paced and gestured as he announced with a charismatic French accent, “Your curriculum states that this is a course in Continental European History. It is not. It is a history of France from the years just prior to the 1789 revolution to the end of World War II. All those who want to leave, go.” No one left.

Like Mrs. Carson, Prof. Goutour was a storyteller. Unlike Mr. Hull, he was more interested in the people who created history than in the dates of battles won or lost. Our text for the French Revolution was R R Palmer’s The Twelve Who Ruled. In-depth portraits of the men who fuelled the reign of terror. Goutour’s maxim: “People make history. Not events.”

Charles de Gaulle came to life in the childhood memories that Professor G shared. When De Gaulle learned that the allies were proceeding north liberating France, he and his entourage paraded through a town just ahead of their arrival claiming to be the saviors of the country. On a Sunday drive past de Gaulle’s provincial palace, every guard posted on the parapets raised his rifle and pointed it directly at Monsieur Goutour’s car then panned along with it until it passed beyond firing range. A memorable outing for a young lad and a memorable tale for the students in his history class.

As much as I loved history, I taught it only one semester. There is a saying, “Teach what you love.” By good fortune I have many loves—Visual arts and the English language among them. Those two became the chief vehicles through which I communicated, for thirty-two years, my love of learning to innumerable young people. I am grateful for the ardent women and men who inspired me.

Katie’s Wisdom: Look Not at the Problems, but at the Potential

The potential possibilities of any child are the most intriguing and stimulating in all creation.”  

Ray L. Wilbur, third president of Stanford University

Although I graduated from university and then teachers’ college, I became a good educator only after I had spent two years working with mentally handicapped children. They are not called that today. It’s politically incorrect. Even so, my diploma says that I am certified to teach “Preschool Education for the Mentally Retarded.” It is a wonder that the certificates were not recalled when the language changed. Then recalled again.

Katie supervised the nursery program at Sun Parlour School. Her enthusiasm and knowledge inspired everyone who knew her. When Katie’s oldest boy was a few months old, Katie worried about his lassitude. Healthcare professionals told her not to fret–all children matured at their own rate. A second son soon followed. Katie noticed that he too seemed “slow.” She suspected that her sons’ lethargy related to the chloroformed cotton held to her face during their births. In both cases, the nurses said that the baby was coming too fast. They had to slow down the process. During the birth of her third son, Katie deflected the hand holding the “slowing-down” cloth. The vagina spat out the child. Much later, Katie learned that, because they had spent too long in the birth canal, the older boys had suffered a lack of oxygen to their brains that resulted in mental retardation. The third, non-chloroformed son graduated in veterinarian medicine.

Rather than lament her situation, Katie resolved to see the highest potential in every child. She carried that positive approach to work every day.

Four Foster Children

James

Autistic James had a sixth toe on each foot. In his chubby five years he had never walked. We asked his foster mother how James spent his days. With a small, almost embarrassed, smile, she informed us that he lay on the floor and gnawed on the tires of a tricycle, contented as a cud-chewing cow.

Katie knew not only that James could walk, but that he wanted to walk. We placed two chairs facing each other about six feet apart. Katie sat on one, I on the other. Katie held James upright between her knees and pointed him in my direction. Then, still holding his hips, she gave a little shove. I reached forward, grabbed his hands, guided him to me, took him onto my lap, then jiggled him up and down and up and down and up and down and told him what a terrific job he had done. Although James never laughed, his eyes grew bright and nearly met mine. Over and over we played the “go get teacher” game. In time, James walked, unassisted, the entire two meters.

A few days later, James’ foster mother raged into the schoolroom. Fury shook her voice. “Why did you teach him to walk?” How much simpler it had been when James lay on the floor biting tricycle tires. His caretaker valued easily earned government money more than a child’s independence and self-worth.

Colin

Colin’s too-small sneakers had holes in their bottoms. In winter Colin went bootless. Katie asked his custodian to provide him with size-appropriate, intact footwear suited to the Canadian climate. His foster parent claimed there was not enough money. Katie’s influence stretched far into the school’s community. Soon, Colin had both shoes and boots—the proper size and without holes. We kept them at the school. Had he gone home with them, a different child would have profited.

Billy

Although it may be wrong for teachers to have pets, Billy was everyone’s favourite. Happy, healthy, huggable Billy, a down’s syndrome child. Each day his foster mom sent him to school with a supply of freshly-laundered bibs to catch the perpetual drool that escaped his mouth. Down’s kids have trouble with tongue-pointing. To strengthen the muscles, and thus improve his speech, Katie devised a game for Billy. Billy and I sat close to each other on tiny facing chairs. I held a bright lollipop in front of me. Billy reached out his tongue and tried to lick it. Many times when his tongue refused to stretch far enough, I moved the candy closer to reward his heroic efforts.

Government officials decided that Billy had been too long with one family. He was becoming attached. When the authorities told his foster parents that Billy was being moved, they filed for his adoption.

Cathy

Cathy may have been six, but looked four. Because her body absorbed nutrients poorly, she was forever hungry. One day in the playground, I watched as Cathy reached through the chain-link fence, clutched some green tomatoes, dragged them out, then smashed several into her mouth. Seeds and juice smeared her face. Her euphoric smile refused to fade at my reprimand.

One afternoon, Katie made one of her unannounced visits to Cathy’s home. The deplorable condition of both the premises and the other foster children prompted Katie to call children’s services. Representatives from that authority duly paid their own visit. Reported that everything was “fine.” Nothing of concern. “Did you notify them of your coming?” Katie inquired.

“Of course we did.”

The situation reminded me of a lazy high school teacher who sat at his desk reading stock market reports while the class did assigned work. One day, the principal sat in at the back of the room for a prearranged inspection. As he left the room, a student commented, “Sir, that was amazing! Why don’t you teach like that all the time?”

Two weeks into the summer vacation, Katie called me with news of Cathy. One morning, another youngster in the household came down the stairs and told her foster mom that Cathy was dead. The mother rebuked her. The child insisted. The mother relented and went to investigate. On the floor beside the bed, lay Cathy’s corpse. No charges were laid. The family continued to foster children.

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I chose not to return to Sun Parlour School that fall. My first child was two months old. I wanted to stay home and enjoy him longer. But, it was more than that. Just like my time working in the sanitarium came to an end, I knew that the emotional toll of “special” education was too great for my sensitive nature. A few years later, I went back to teaching teenagers. This time I took with me the invaluable tools that Katie had given me:

  • See potential not problems
  • Set each task just a little higher that a child’s present learning—create a challenge, not frustration
  • Praise the smallest accomplishment—with honesty and enthusiasm
  • Remember, always, that every child wants to be successful

Over the next twenty-nine years of my teaching career, I continued to hone those abilities. Further, even though I acquired other useful insights and skills, I still view Katie as my greatest inspiration.

Postscript

Peter

I was teaching a ninth grade remedial English class. Reading levels ranged from grades two to six. The lesson: “How to Write a Five Sentence Paragraph.” First, list three things that you like about yourself and give support for each. Some of the students had a tough time with that. I furnished examples: I have a good sense of humor—I can make my family laugh. I like the way I dress—I have a unique fashion sense. I am a good friend—I am always there for my pals. It is easy after that—an opening sentence to introduce the topic, three supporting sentences with examples and a concluding sentence.

I toured the room. Seventeen pupils scribbled. One sat sullen. Stared at a blank page. I took the chair beside Peter’s. “What do you like about yourself?” I whispered.

“Nothing.”

“I’ll tell you what I like about you. Are you okay with that?”

A small nod.

“I like your mischievous grin. It suggests that there is a fun-loving part of you. Also, I notice that you always stand up for your friends. I saw that in the hall today when you stepped in to protect little Martin. Third, you are handsome.”

Peter wrote down the first two suggestions but balked at the last. Embarrassed. “I can’t say that!”

“Well, I think you’re good-looking. But, you could say instead, I like that I am strong, or fit, or healthy.” Peter wrote his five-sentence paragraph. I wondered if it was the first time an adult had praised him.

Thank you Katie for teaching me to believe in every child.